Marvel’s latest entry into their cinematic universe is a fun ride filled with historical nods to actual African cultures, great acting, and a plot that actually has you personally weighing both sides of the presented argument about how much nationalism or isolationism is good or bad. However, the movie is rife with political overtones, some of which I found astonishingly refreshing, some I found worthy of an eye roll.
Without giving too much away, the story of Black Panther centers around King T’Challa, the superhero more commonly known as Black Panther. Throughout the movie, T’Challa is confronted with the idea of opening up the borders of Wakanda, an isolationist, nationalistic, homogeneous country, to refugees, as well as exporting their primary source of power, a metal known as vibranium (the metal used to make Captain America’s indestructible shield), to the world.
The Wakandan people used vibranium over millenniums to become the most technologically advanced people in the world, allowing them to create ships, weapons, and medical advancements that you’d find in a sci-fi movie about the distant future. However, the Wakandan people are very protective of this metal and the technologies derived from it. When a thief steals some and attempts to sell it on the black market, T’Challa and his team leave a path of destruction behind them in their attempt to catch the thief.
Their reasoning is that the world outside of the Wakandan border is rife with conflict, and Wakanda’s resources could easily be abused by anyone who gets their hands on their metal and tech. What’s more, Wakanda has thrived as a nation by closely protecting its borders, and keeping its technological advancement to itself. As one Wakandan puts it, the moment Wakanda opens itself to refugees, their problems become Wakanda’s problems.
This is a very interesting take from a Hollywood movie, given the current political climate concerning border security and refugees, but more on that later.
Some Wakandan’s, however, believe that the hoarding of such tech is wrong and that the world could greatly benefit from the tech Wakanda has to offer. From the position of the good guys, this means helping refugees and allowing medicine and tech to improve the lives of the rest of the world. For the bad guys, this means handing weapons to the “oppressed” in order to fight their oppressors.
And it’s this plot point where the movie gets politically dangerous to the mainstream.
Like any Hollywood movie, it’s the racist that’s the bad guy. But astoundingly, the racist bad guy is black. Throughout the movie he goes on an identity politics trip about black people being oppressed by other races, that his culture was stolen, and that he’s going to use Wakanda’s tech to arm the oppressed so that they might rise up and take control, killing all those who kept them oppressed for so long, including the women and children.
Essentially, the villain is the “kill cracker babies” guy from 2010.
The culmination of the movie is the ideological fight turned physical over how Wakanda will help the world, not if it should, with the villain representing black people around the world given weapons to become the dominant race over the Earth, and the hero wanting to share some of the advancements for everyone.
In an age where social justice warriors are proclaiming that white people are the source of all evil, and the media just goes along with it, it’s good to see a movie that represents someone with that line of thinking as the bad guy.
But sadly the movie never flat out denies that white people are bad, just that this line of thinking is, which seems like an odd line to draw. Even the good guys from time to time make small quips that put white people in a bad light, like T’Challa’s little sister calling the movie’s token white guy a “colonizer.” This is the bad politics the movie engages in, where it feels necessary to paint the entirety of whites as villains for past transgressions, even as the good guys acknowledge they can’t be held responsible for the sins of their ancestors. It’s a double standard that made me roll my eyes a few times during the movie.
And it’s that casual racism that really gets under my skin. If the colors were reversed, and such casual racism was featured in the movie as laugh lines or tragic plot points as it was in Black Panther, there would be media campaigns, politicians, and activists all lining up to denounce the movie as racist garbage. We’d never hear the end of it.
But the casual racism also doesn’t pop up where you’d expect it to, making it tolerable. The token white guy in the film, CIA agent Everette Ross (Martin Freeman) isn’t the bumbling “we cool?”, uncool, overly nervous white guy you see in many movies with predominantly black casts. He proves to be highly capable, asserts his character, and is integral to the good guys winning the battle. This is a refreshing break from Hollywood tropes that I feel is becoming a welcome trend. The last time I saw a character breaking the tropes this well was the portrayal of Billy Cranston of 2017’s Power Rangers, who instead of being the stereotypical cool black guy, was an autistic nerd who loved country music. The breakaway from the tropes made both Ross and Cranston some of my favorite characters in their respective films.
Overall, the movie fits nicely into the MCU as one of the better movies, but definitely not the best one. It comes in below any of the Captain America movies, and well below Thor: Ragnarok in terms of greatness. I definitely recommend seeing it.